Mialy is a legal advisor focused on environmental law and has a special interest in marine conservation. For the past four years she has worked as a policy advisor with the marine conservation NGO, Blue Ventures in Madagascar, advising project managers, local communities and partners on laws and policies concerning fisheries, endangered species, marine protected areas and environmental management. Mialy graduated with a degree in Public Law and Political Sciences in Madagascar, studied Environmental Law at Pace Law School in New York and recently completed the MPhil in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge.
Partnerships are nowadays a mainstream conservation concept. Indeed, how would we achieve conservation when there are so few of us involved, with limited resources and often based far from the biodiversity we need to conserve?
This is probably at the centre of the rationale of partnerships in conservation. By working together, we can make the most of our limited resources and achieve far more than we could by going it alone. I am sure that if we were to ask around, it would be difficult to find a conservation NGO that would say that it is not involved in any partnership.
So, because of the significant amount of resources that organisations put in them, including their expertise, human resources and finances, I think partnerships deserve to be looked at more closely.
By working together, we can make the most of our limited resources and achieve far more than we could by going it alone. Credit: G. Clark
Nowadays, conservation organisations tend to monitor and evaluate their projects closely and carefully, and there are many different tools available to help with this. Many of these can be found online including on the new Capacity for Conservation website.
Evaluation of conservation partnerships has, however, received less interest. This is unfortunate, because partnerships teach us many lessons that could benefit conservation organisations and practitioners – we have much to learn from each other. Therefore, our evaluation of projects needs to integrate more evaluation of conservation partnerships.
This reflection and evaluation was the aim of my placement with Fauna & Flora International (FFI), which formed part of my studies for the University of Cambridge’s MPhil in Conservation Leadership course.
It was a great exercise for me. As a practitioner, it allowed me to give more attention to partnerships; attention that is often focused on project implementation. My study involved interviewing staff from both FFI and their partners to learn from them and get their thoughts on the partnerships they were involved in.
FFI has approximately 300 partnerships across five continents and with different sectors, from community based organisations to businesses and universities.
With over 300 partnerships across five continents, making these successful is of huge importance to FFI. Credit: JA Bruson
It was an extraordinary experience to listen to 24 managers from different sectors and countries and, especially, to find some common points and conclusions, despite so many different perspectives.
From my discussions, I picked up four main themes – areas that are critical to the success (or failure) of a partnership.
When key elements such as roles and responsibilities, objectives, vision and milestones were in place, the partnerships had a clear remit and were easier to manage.
On the other hand, where there is a lack of clarity, the terms of a partnership may be open to interpretation which leads to unintended actions or a lack of action.
Along the same lines, interviewees also agreed that failure to set up realistic expectations led to serious challenges, including creating an unsustainable dependence in one of the cases studied.
Objectives, shared vision and milestones are important in fostering successful partnerships. Credit: Amy Reed/FFI
The second important lesson I picked up from everyone I interviewed was the importance of knowing the context of the partnership.
This context includes knowledge of the country where the partnership takes place, the related administrative formalities and financial requirements and, most importantly, the language.
To achieve this kind of understanding, some of the partnerships have put in place a liaison officer to help with communication and understanding within the partnership.
On the challenges side, partnerships have fallen apart when they lacked this understanding and critical thinking regarding resources (financial, human, logistics and capacity) that are needed and available.
The most frequently discussed issue among the interviewees was the great benefits that open and regular communication including face to face meetings between the parties brought to the partnership.
Another element was the importance of individual leadership and buy-in from senior executives on both sides. On the challenge side, failure to communicate appropriately or regularly on both sides leads to issues in the partnership, with each party not understanding each other or not able to communicate their respective needs.
Face to face meetings prove to be of huge benefit in open communications between partners. Credit: G. Clark
Even though it might be difficult to think of the future when just beginning a partnership, interviewees agreed that discussing the long-term aspirations of both parties as early as possible and setting a clear vision for the partnership was essential. Leadership plays a key role in establishing this long term vision.
The interviewees also recognised that changes in staff can bring real challenges.
I hope my work will help other practitioners and organisations out there to learn from FFI’s experience and start reflecting on their own partnerships, to see what lessons they can learn.
Ultimately, our aim is to achieve our conservation goals, but in this ambitious task we need to adopt a dual approach: working towards achievement and impact but also keeping our minds on how we get there, and reflecting on it.
In his paper Leadership and conservation effectiveness: finding a better way to lead, Simon Black said that a conservation leader needs to have the “willingness to encourage learning, improvement, and receptiveness to alternative solutions.”
I believe we should take more of these lessons from partnerships and help our conservation partnerships to improve.